By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE– The box score in front of him confirmed what University of Virginia head coach Tony Bennett had witnessed over the previous two hours: another dominant performance by his basketball team, which dismantled a top-10 opponent at John Paul Jones Arena for the second time in two weeks.
Against one of the ACC’s top defenses, Virginia shot 54.2 percent from 3-point range and 58.5 percent overall Tuesday night. The Cavaliers collected assists on 18 of their 31 field goals, held a prolific offense well under its shooting and scoring averages, and won the rebounding battle 27-19.
“This was a great team effort,” Bennett said after fourth-ranked UVA took sole possession of first place in the ACC with an 81-59 win over ninth-ranked Virginia Tech.
In almost every category, the Cavaliers (16-0 overall, 4-0 ACC) bested the Hokies (14-2, 3-1). Every one of UVA’s rotation players had a positive impact in the first of these rivals’ two Commonwealth Clash meetings: from Ty Jerome to De’Andre Hunter to Kyle Guy to Jack Salt to Mamadi Diakite to Braxton Key to Kihei Clark to Jay Huff.
“You can tell they have fun playing together, and how could you not in this environment?” Bennett said.
Indeed, the sellout crowd of 14,623, which included such former UVA players as Isaiah Wilkins, Ralph Sampson, Richard Morgan, Mamadi Diane and Tunji Soroye, was in full voice throughout. “The crowd was amazing tonight,” Guy said.
That’s usually the case at JPJ, and Bennett knew the fans would provide an emotional lift to his team. Still, he reminded his players that execution would be the key to defeating the Hokies, who rallied in overtime last season to stun the Cavaliers at JPJ.
Emotion “really wasn’t going to matter,” Bennett said. “That can get you for maybe a minute or two, and then it comes down to, do you do well what matters most?”
As the Wahoos had Jan. 5 in a one-sided win over then-No. 9 Florida State at JPJ, they controlled the game from the start Tuesday night. Jerome led the way.
The 6-5 junior had a hand in each of UVA’s first 19 points. Jerome assisted on two Diakite baskets (a layup and a dunk) and on 3-pointers by Hunter and Huff. No. 11 scored the other nine points himself.
Jerome finished with 14 points and a career-high 12 assists, the most any player has had at JPJ, which opened in 2006. He closed the first half with a flourish, passing to Clark, whose 3-pointer as time expired pushed the Cavaliers’ lead to 44-22.
“Guys did a great job of making shots around me,” Jerome said.
Many of those shots came from beyond the arc. Virginia was 10 for 14 from long range in the first half and 13 of 24 for the game. Jerome had a game-high four treys, and Guy and Clark made three apiece.
“They shot the ball incredibly well in the first half, and we were just behind,” Tech head coach Buzz Williams. “We were behind on ball pressure, behind on rotation, behind on stunts. With space, categorically, their whole team can make shots, and they did for sure in the first half.”
The Hokies heated up offensively in the second half, shooting 12 of 24 from the floor, but Virginia never grew complacent. After a 3-pointer by Tech guard Ahmed Hill made it 48-34, the Cavaliers responded with a 13-5 run that included a dunk by the 6-8 Key and two baskets by the 6-10 Salt.
“I think Virginia is incredibly well-coached,” Williams said. “I don’t think that they get off track. I think they’re very sound fundamentally, and when you’re late, on whatever late it would be … they make you pay. Very rarely do they take a forced shot. They’re very comfortable late in the clock. So I think that defensively you’re stressed from the beginning.”
Hunter proved to be an especially difficult matchup for the Hokies. A 6-7, 225-pound redshirt sophomore from Philadelphia, Hunter showed why he’s projected to be a first-round NBA draft pick. Splitting time at small forward and power forward, he made 8 of 12 shots from the floor, scored 21 points, grabbed five rebounds and had two assists.
“I thought his versatility was on full display tonight,” Bennett said.
In sophomore guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker, the Hokies have an elite NBA prospect, too, and he scored a team-high 19 points Tuesday night.
“Those are two super-sophomores, if you want to say it that way,” Bennett said. “But I thought Dre really was so efficient and worked hard defensively too. So, it wasn’t just the offensive performance, it was a complete performance.”
Hunter had a height advantage throughout the game, and he exploited it.
“I just try to be aggressive in the post,” he said. “We knew that they were going to trap, and when they stopped trapping for some reason, I just tried to take advantage of the dude that was guarding me.”
Williams said Hunter “was incredibly effective, not only away from the basket, but he’s also comfortable right around the basket. Playing in traffic, he can finish at the rim. A very, very good player.”
For the Cavaliers, it was a very, very good night in an arena where they’ve won 51 of their past 56 conference games.
“We’re playing at a good level,” Bennett said. “I like what I’ve seen, and it’s been different guys at different times.”
WELCOME HOME: To UVA fans, there’s only one Isaiah Wilkins, and it’s not the 6-3 freshman who plays for Virginia Tech.
The Cavaliers’ Isaiah Wilkins, who now plays in the NBA’s G-League, was seated in the first row behind the home bench Tuesday night, and he received a standing ovation when he was shown on the videoboard during a second-half break.
Wilkins was the ACC’s defensive player of the year in 2017-18.
“I’ve been blessed to have guys like him,” Bennett said.
SPECIAL BREED: One of Wilkins’ many attributes was his competitive spirit, and that’s a quality Jerome shares.
“Everybody’s competitive at this level, but Ty is uber-competitive,” Bennett said. “He’s just always been like that, and obviously being an upperclassman he knows what’s required … You have to have that on your team, and I think that sets apart Ty. It always has.”
FREE AND EASY: For the first time in more than a month, Clark played without a cast or a splint on his left wrist, which he fractured Dec. 3 and had surgery on a week later. With only tape on his left wrist, the right-handed Clark played 30 minutes Tuesday night and tied his season high with nine points.
Clark made 3 of 5 shots from beyond the arc. More important, the 5-9 freshman played tenacious defense on Tech senior Justin Robinson, one of the ACC’s best point guards. Robinson finished with only nine points and two assists and was assessed a technical foul with 9:32 remaining.
“Kihei, he’s just got something inside of him,” Bennett said. “Those of you who’ve watched us can see that. He won’t back down, and he’s quick and he’s got a low center of gravity, and that bodes well, and he just made [Robinson] earn most of the night.”
Clark said: “I was just trying to keep him in front. Don’t reach … I know I have my teammates behind me, and that allows me to pressure the ball. I think we collectively stopped [Robinson].”
EFFICIENT: Guy, a 6-2 junior who came into the game as Virginia’s leading scorer (15.3 ppg), finished with 15 points. He hit 5 of 9 shots from the floor, including 3 of 5 from long range, and grabbed five rebounds, tying Salt and Hunt for team honors.
“It’s a smart group, and up to this point we’ve played smart basketball, in terms of sharing it,” Bennett said. “Kyle, he can get it going, but he just has a good pace about himself. For a guy with his shooting ability, how he chooses his moments is impressive.”
THEY SAID IT: The victory was UVA’s ninth straight over a ranked opponent. Among the noteworthy postgame comments:
* Jerome on the NBA-length-and-then-some 3-pointer he hit from in front of the Hokies’ bench on UVA’s second possession after 6-10 Kerry Blackshear Jr. switched onto him: “I didn’t know how deep I was. I saw I had room and let it go.”
* Williams on Clark: “I think that those little guys that have that change of direction, change of pace, seem to force rotation maybe a little quicker than guys that are taller.”
* Guy on whether UVA was motivated by its 2018 loss to the Hokies at JPJ: “Honestly, for me it wasn’t on my mind at all. I was just trying to focus on what was at hand, and that was do everything that we do as best as we could, and we did that. We punched them in the mouth and they fought back a little, and then we kept our foot on the pedal.”
ON THE ROAD AGAIN: On Saturday night, the Cavaliers will play away from JPJ for the third time in four games.
At 6 o’clock, fourth-ranked Virginia (16-0, 4-0) meets top-ranked Duke (14-2, 3-1) at Cameron Indoor Stadium. ESPN will air its College GameDay show from Cameron that day.
The Blue Devils are coming off an overtime loss to Syracuse, which rallied to win Monday night in Durham.
Virginia has won 12 straight ACC road games, a streak that includes a victory at Cameron Indoor Stadium. On Jan. 27, 2018, second-ranked UVA rallied to defeat fourth-ranked Duke 65-63 in Durham. That ended a 17-game losing streak at Cameron for the ‘Hoos, who hadn’t won there since 1995.
“Last year was definitely an awesome win, but it’s a whole new team,” Jerome said Tuesday night. “It’s a fresh, new game, but winning there last year, we understand how crazy Cameron is. We understand how loud they get when they go on runs. We know how talented this year’s [Duke] team is. We know what we’re in for, we know it’s going to be a real battle, but we’ll be ready for it.”
The key for the Cavaliers, Guy said, is to “continue to practice the way that we know how and stay true to ourselves. We love playing on the road, and obviously we love playing at home, too. The crowd was amazing tonight. We want to take this momentum going into Cameron.”